Lyell, Analogy and the Distancing of Geology from Cosmology

While for contemporary readers the reason may not be so readily apparent, in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology he needed to insist that geology was something other than cosmogony as the very precondition for his attempts to persuade his readers of the three main premises of his work, namely: Actualism, the view that the same kind of causes have been at work at all times in history, Uniformitarianism, that they have also been operating at the same intensity and the existence of a closed, self-sustaining, system in which these forces act.

Having previously stated that “[g]eology is intimately related to almost all the physical science, as is history to the moral”, he then proceeds to distance it from other modes of knowing for “just as the limits of history, poetry and mythology were ill-defined in the infancy of civilization” so too were the limits of geology in his own time. This is of some note, for where Lyell sets his boundaries will greatly affect his ability to present his point.

Take, for instance, his statement that when we inquire “into the state of the earth and its inhabitance at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition” which demonstrates both his Actualism and his Uniformitarianism. If the concept of cosmogony were permitted to encroach on geology then this statement would have been made much more problematic for him, for any inquiry into the beginning of things generally either posits a definitive beginning (in which there was some fundamental change in the structure of causality) or else accept that the universe was cyclical (which he goes to great length to disprove in the second and third chapter of this work, attributing this position in part to an early misunderstanding by pagan religions of the presence of fossilized animals). True, there are many other potential conditions, and the concept of a purely infinite cosmos which is not cyclical, is not addressed, however these were the two alternatives that he wished to specifically avoid in his geological researches.

It is telling to note how closely his explanation for the primitive belief in a cyclical cosmos reflects his opposition to the Neptunist doctrine of catastrophic floods. He uses both pagan and Christian examples to point out the psychological origins of catastrophic thinking, which resonates with his previous analogy of the relationship between geology and history. He states that “[t]he connexion [sic] between the doctrine of successive catastrophes and repeated deteriorations in the moral character of the human race, is more intimate and natural than might at first be imagined”, making reference to the Chilean earthquake of 1822, and those Catholics who attributed it to God’s displeasure. Through this comparison, he argues the existence of Pagan and Catholic misunderstandings of nature as being the basis for his Neptunist opponents’ position.

Lyell’s dependency on analogies, the same analogies which allow him to distance himself from his detractors, also rests on the separation of cosmogony from the true object of his study, as can be seen in his discussion of the relationship between history and geology. Near the end of the first chapter he promises that he will “attempt in the sequel of this work to demonstrate that geology differs as widely from cosmogony, as speculations concerning the creation of man differ from history”. Both history, in the sense that Lyell means, as the history of civilization, and geology cease being recognizable disciplines when they are drawn back far enough into the past. Thus as prehistory is to the history of civilization, so too is cosmogony to geology; it is a paradigm shift whose transgression eclipses the purpose of its original study. For the purpose of Lyell’s project it does not matter how ancient the earth is, as long as we do not begin at the very beginning we can assume a certain consistency and therefore draw conclusions (which indeed, may not be possible in any other fashion). This is particularly evident in his comments on human history, in which he states that we can:

“trace the long series of events which have gradually led to the actual posture of affairs; and by connecting effects with their causes, we are enabled to classify and retain in the memory a multitude of complicated relations […], which, without historical associations, would be uninteresting or imperfectly understood.”

Without the ability to trace these “historical associations” through a consistent, though finite, chain of cause and effect his argument is made lame by its lack of causal and historical certainty, yet this uncertainty is exactly what cosmogony would throw into Lyell’s geography if he were to accept it as part of his study. How could the ultimate origins of the earth be explained by geology without the possibility of a frightful regression into an endless chain of causality, or else without the need for a transcendent principle acting beyond the commonly understood order of cause and effect?

Thus Lyell’s need to amputate cosmogony from geology demonstrates a persistent paradox in the nature of the historical sciences. This is particularly so in the case of geology which depends on an understanding of secondary causes (or an indirect approach to causality) to demonstrate its validity: In order for the science to explain things with some universality, as Lyell insists is necessary, it must limit itself to a finite subject whose very finitude makes the historical associations mentioned in the preceding quotation possible. Thus there is an interesting and potentially paradoxical concern that if we wish to be able to say anything universal it can not take as its object that which is actually universal, such as the beginning of things.

However, is it so important to “amputate” cosmogony in Lyell’s scheme, considering that the scientific and rhetorical basis of his arguments are so strong? Yet it must necessarily be of the greatest importance. It is striking that the chapters refuting geology’s difference from cosmogony were left out of the Weber anthology on this subject. They constitute Lyell’s efforts to sweep the slate clean of “the most common and serious source of confusion” in early geology. He does this in order to firmly root his hypothesis in what he sees as more empirical soil, but which has its own implications outside of this particular project.

To play the devil’s advocate, could it not be said that Lyell’s need for a closed, self-sustaining system would necessarily benefit from admitting cosmogony into the scheme of geology? If he were only trying to demonstrate the self-sufficiency of the closed system this would have been the case; however, here we again come up against the demands of Actualism and the Uniformitarianism placed by Lyell on his geology.

Ultimately then, in order for Lyell’s project to succeed he needed to separate the definite science of geology from the indefinite results of cosmogony. Whereas the one would leave him no starting point from which to draw his other conclusions, the other allowed him a freedom to demonstrate the consistency of causes on this earth, without having to resort to explanations beyond or behind its origins. It is in its way another example of the trend in the nineteenth century towards increased specialization, in which disciplines were further subdivide in order than anything might be known with certainty about the particulars of nature. The problem after Lyell would then not be a matter of separation, but one of consolidation.

For More Information:

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology. London: John Murray, 1830.

(Accessed online at ESP: Electronic Scholarly Publishing: http://www.esp.org/books/lyell/principles/facsimile/)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principles_of_Geology

Weber, A.S. Ed. 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.

God of Hutton, God of Kelvin: Religion, Eternity and the Age of the Earth

The debate between William Thomson, who would later be ennobled as Lord Kelvin (1824 –1907) and the followers of James Hutton (1726–1797) demonstrates a difficult period in the history of nineteenth century science in which the figures who are traditionally regarded as the fathers of modern geology (Hutton) and biology (Darwin) where pitted against Lord Kelvin, who is still considered one of the founding fathers of thermodynamics, and thus of modern physics. The point which brought these figures into conflict was the argument surrounding the age of the earth. Hutton’s and Kelvin’s methodologies were in some ways very similar, particularly in their views on the uniformity of nature and the demand for evidence of a beneficent being who created the natural world. Furthermore, both were forced to appeal to secondary causes when trying to defend their positions. Where they differed substantially was in their understanding of eternity in the larger framework of how the creator expressed himself in the world and how this related to the human ability to understand it.

It would be too easy to phrase the debate between Kelvin and the geologists as a conflict between empirical evidence and religious prejudices in nineteenth century science. Indeed, Kelvin himself gave ample evidence that he worried about the theological implications of the geological and evolutionary theories of his time. In an 1872 speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Kelvin concluded his discussion with a reaffirmation of these worries in the “zoological speculations” of contemporary biologists, stating that: “Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us […] showing to us through nature the influence of a free will, and teaching us that all living things depend on one everlasting Creator and Ruler”. Presumably, Kelvin felt that the vast time scales proposed by Hutton, Lyell and Darwin would remove the need for a creator in the universe and infringe on the free will of humans.

Yet in this assumption we are all too quick to ignore the unorthodox religious views which led Hutton to formulate his self perpetuating “world machine”. As laid down by one of his more eloquent proponents, John Playfair (1748–1819), this perpetuity is ultimately maintained by God, for the author of nature: “has not given laws to the universe, which, like the institutions of men, carry in themselves the elements of their own destruction. He has not permitted in His works any symptoms of infancy, or of old age, or any sign by which we may estimate either their future or their past duration”. The world had obviously been created for the benefit of the things living upon it and for human beings in particular, and it would not have been fitting for a wise and omnipotent being to create it as anything other than eternal. As is clear from Playfair’s statement, it was this very indefiniteness which was the sign of divinity. While the system itself was indefinite, as a product of God’s wisdom, once started the world machine would perpetuate the specific cycles of uplift and erosion unendingly, maintaining the various balances which were necessary for life.

In the case of Kelvin, the situation is aptly summarized by Burchfield in his work Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth, for “it was the belief in design that justified the formulation of universal scientific laws, that assured the relationship of cause and effect, that, in short, made science possible”. Considering Hutton’s religious views, it seems very unlikely that he would disagree with this statement. The science of both men was deeply integrated with their theological conceptions of how a wise and omnipotent God would construct an orderly world.

Likewise, Kelvin and Hutton’s intellectual defender, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) largely agreed on the actualism of causation, in which the same kind of causes have been at work at all times, and held similar views of uniformitarianism, in which the same causes have been acting with the same intensity over time. As Lyell formulated it, through: “researches into the state of the earth and its inhabitants at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition, and more comprehensive views concerning the laws now governing its animate and inanimate production”. This was also the case for Kelvin, for whom logical consistency “required that since the discovery of the primitive state of matter is beyond man’s power, if one is to find a probable beginning, he must start with the present condition of nature and reason back by analogy and strict dynamics”.

The situation is somewhat less definite in regards to the two men’s approaches to uniformitarianism. As it was generally argued, Kelvin was clearly antagonistic to the idea as he understood it. However, in his work On Geological Dynamics, Kelvin specifies that he is opposed to what he called “ultra-uniformitarianism”, and otherwise speaks approvingly of other similar movements in geology: “The geology which I learned thirty years ago [embodied the fundamental theory of] Evolutionism. This I have always considered to be the substantial and irrefragable part of geological speculation; and I have looked on the ultra-uniformitarianism of the last twenty years as a temporary aberration worthy of being energetically protested against”. When seen in this light, Kelvin’s affinity for certain forms of uniformitarianism becomes more evident and shows the difficulties in strictly drawing a line between the methods employed by  proponents of the young earth and those of the old.

This subtlety is clearly shown when one considers Kelvin’s argument presented by On the Secular Cooling of the Earth, in which he states “that essential principles of Thermo-dynamics have been overlooked by those geologists who uncompromisingly oppose all paroxysmal hypostheses”. Immediately following this Kelvin makes it clear that he is not a catastrophist in the traditional sense of the word. For him: “It is quite certain the solar system cannot have gone on even as at present […], without the irrevocable loss (by dissipation, not by annihilation) of a very considerable proportion of the entire energy initially in store for sun heat”. The distinction between annihilation and dissipation is a crucial one. Not only is it a reaffirmation of the first law of thermodynamics, but it also opens the door to a different kind of unimformitarianism than that typically attributed to Lyell or Hutton. It is one in which there can be a uniformity of causes without a corresponding uniformity of effects. The causes themselves have been acting at the same intensity; however, their effects have varied over time because of the limitation placed on them by the second law of thermodynamics. The laws are the same, the causes are the same, yet as Kelvin says: “the secular rate of dissipation has been in some direct proportion to the total amount of energy in store, at any time after the commencement of the present order of things, and has been therefore very slowly diminishing from age to age”. The rate of the dissipation would vary in proportion to the total amount of energy in store, producing effects of varying intensities despite the uniformity of the causes governing them.

This crucial distinction is what allowed Kelvin to criticize Playfair’s statement that only a direct act of God could bring about a catastrophe like the one implied by Kelvin’s thermodynamic approach to the age of the earth. Playfair concludes the passage by stating: “we may safely conclude that this great catastrophe will not be brought about by any of the laws now existing, and that it is not indicated by anything which we perceive”. Kelvin, however, found a grave error in this view of uniformity. Indeed, he saw it as being: “pervaded by a confusion between ‘present order,’ or ‘present system,’ and ‘laws now existing’—between destruction of the earth as a place habitable to beings such as now live on it, and a decline or failure of law and order in the universe”. Thus it is evident that he did not contest the validity of uniformity itself. Kelvin contested what he saw as a narrow view of uniformity that could not derive universal laws from the present order of things within the finite framework of the solar system, but instead was forced to posit an indefinite standpoint in order to make its system scientifically valid.

Thus, when looking at Lyell’s three main tenants of actualism, uniformitarianism and cyclicality, it is only the underlying principle of cyclicality which differs substantially from Kelvin’s own thought. What, then, can be said about the fundamental differences that divided Kelvin’s thought from that of the geological community of his time? These differences can not appeal to the specious distinction between science and religion in either camp, since their religiosity was almost identical in its demands for an ordered, benevolent deity which made science possible. Rather, the question was what that beneficent order would look like. Likewise, one can not make appeals to the demand both groups placed upon their thinking in regards to the stability of causality which made scientific inquiry into the past possible. Where they did differ was in the objects of study which each group took up to defend its claims, and how these objects could in some ways only be viewed indirectly. It was the indirectness of secondary causes which left both groups open to criticism from the opposing camp and perpetuated the debate for almost forty years in Kelvin’s lifetime alone. At the heart of the matter, however, were the conflicting views of eternity which formed the basis of both Hutton’s, as mediated through Lyell, and Kelvin’s visceral opposition to the other’s work, about the circularity or progressiveness of nature.

It would be helpful here to provide some explanation of what is meant by secondary causes. Secondary causes in this case would be any cause which must be appealed to in order to get to a more primary cause which can not be directly observed. Since it is not possible for people to actually see the effects of time in geology over thousands or millions of years, it is then necessary when explaining its effects to point instead to the effects of things such as the dissipation of heat, uplift, layering, and erosion. Once these explanations are found it is then possible to work backwards from the causes of these effects to the prime cause, whether that be the formation and age of the earth itself or the formation and age of a specific mountain range.

Hutton, in exploring the age of the earth, took as his object of study the layers of the earth itself. As first this consideration seems to go without saying, yet it is important to note that this was not the case with Kelvin, who instead dealt almost exclusively with the nature of heat, and the ability of the earth to support living things. Both of them were looking at secondary causes to demonstrate their positions, one in the effects of unimaginable time on the earth itself and the other at the age of the suns heat. The nature of their particular observations made both arguments vulnerable to their own particular criticisms.

The discovery of unconformity in geological strata demonstrated to Hutton a key mechanism in the circularity of geological processes. Unconformities are the remains of geological strata which have been displaced from their horizontal alignment and instead now occupy a vertical position relative to the above strata (see appendix 1). The conclusions which were drawn from this phenomenon were most artfully stated, once again, by Playfair: “We often said to ourselves, What [sic] clearer evidence could we have had of the different formation of these rocks, and of the long interval which separated their formation, […] Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective”. Unconformities had the effect of breaking down older geological strata, in some ways erasing the records of past time. Their existence was a vital part of Hutton’s argument for a cyclical earth, and represented his most direct evidence that the age of the earth was not something limited by either past or future ages.

This kind of “direct” indirect evidence demonstrates the problem facing any purely geological inquiry into the age of the earth. Hutton and his followers, when considering the single system of the earth, could only consider what incidental evidence was left over for them after years of intervening phenomenon had had a chance to bury and destroy the very evidence they were looking for. This naturally left them with an indeterminate number of cycles continuing without apparent end. True, they were shown an example of the vast time scale on which geology operated, opening up the door to a more complete depiction of the age of the earth; however, they were unable to derive any further evidence for these same cycles except to point, rock hammer in hand, at the immense times required to lay the cycles down in the geological strata. Outside of this they could only appeal to base principles of what was required for life and a beneficent deity. The instability of these secondary causes would continually leave the early Uniformitarians open to accusations that they had not sufficiently grasped the physical and mathematical laws governing their field of study, while their very same field of study seemed to deny any attempt at strict quantification because of the same order that made it observable in the first place.

The problem Kelvin faced was somewhat different, though directly related to the difficulties of secondary causes in quantifying geological time. Taking as his object of study the dissipation of heat, and armed with the mathematical tools of thermodynamics, Kelvin would at first glance appear to have a better standing when it came to quantifying the age of the earth. Yet here too Kelvin was confronted by the same bugbear of secondary causes as were his intellectual opponents. Kelvin hoped to use the second law of thermodynamics to help guide his calculations into the age of the earth. The second law of thermodynamics lays down that energy is always moving from a more ordered to a less ordered state, the most disordered form of energy being heat. For example, a cup of tea in a cold room will never become warmer while the room cools, but will continue to loose heat to its environment in a predictable manner until both the room and the tea reach a state of thermal equilibrium. It was this predictable rate of dissipation which Kelvin hoped to use as his indicator in much the same way as radioactive decay is used today to determine the age of objects.

Kelvin used mathematical principles guided by the second law of thermodynamics in part because he could not look to the earth itself when in need of placing a definitive limit on its age. Here the quantitative factors were still too murky, and in some cases were directly hostile to his position. Rather, in using the definitive measure of heat, and taking as his object the age of the sun, he could hope to be able to fix the age of the earth by binding it with that of the sun which could not be studied qualitatively, but only quantitatively. This appears to have been his intent. In a thirty-one year span Kelvin worked out his calculations drawing the age of the earth ever closer to the common estimate of the age of the sun, so that the age of the earth went from being twenty and four hundred million years, compared to the sun’s twenty million years, to a number set at twenty-four million years.

Fundamentally, however, the precision of his calculations in placing limits on the age of the earth was secondary to his main goal of firmly establishing that such limits actually existed. As Burchfield says “The inexactness of his calculations was […] unimportant so long as they established the necessity for a limit upon geological time and the impossibility of uniformitarianism’s demand for limitless ages”. Still, since Kelvin took as his object the sun, which could only be known quantitatively through astronomical means, he was nevertheless open to chargers of miscalculation, and to criticisms of the roundabout way in which he sought to fix the age of the earth.

Given the difficulty inherent in any definitive resolution to the problem of the age of the earth, then, we must look even further into the primary goals Kelvin and Hutton hoped to achieve in their world systems. In doing so we see that the matter was largely a reflection of the different ways in which the two men viewed the nature and dangers of the concept of eternity for human kind, and for the very possibility of reason in natural philosophy.

Hutton’s cyclical conception of the world took as its model Newton’s cosmos, infinite in space, whose motions where perfectly balanced in the orbits of the planets. Yet where Newton’s cosmos was infinite in space, Hutton’s world would focus on the infinity of time. The balancing of forces which maintained the planetary orbits was analogous to the balancing forces of erosion and uplift which maintained the succession of worlds. Yet the movement from an infinite cosmos to an eternal world is not without its difficulties. Hutton’s world machine made a radical statement about the nature of history, and implied a more enclosed system than the Newtonian cosmos. Still, Hutton often drew the comparison between the cycles of the planets and the cycles of the earth.

This is exactly how he prefaces his famous concluding lines to the Theory of the Earth. After having just recounted the three periods of the earth and reaffirming the indefiniteness of their duration, he then goes on to draw the connection between the cyclical age of the earth and that of the planets, stating:

[W]e have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. […] The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end.

For Hutton, as is evident from this excerpt, it is the eternally cyclic essence of natural phenomenon which makes it possible to logically observe systems in the world, which to a large extent makes them knowable. Without these cycles the most we could observe would be incidental phenomenon, insufficient for the development of universal principles. This demand upon knowledge has a surprising consequence. Natural phenomena are understandable insofar as they are cyclic in nature. This can be seen in the progression of animals, plants, climate and geology. However, human history, insofar as it focuses on particulars is unimportant, and potentially can not really be seen to exist at all.

Kelvin himself, however, was not entirely opposed to some forms of eternity. As is evident from his On the Age of the Sun’s Heat:

The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws. But it is impossible to conceive a limit to the extent of matter in the universe; and therefore science points rather to an endless progress, through an endless space, of action involving the transformation of potential energy into palpable motion and thence into heat, than to a single finite mechanism, running down like a clock, and stopping for ever.

While this passage is almost universally held to mark the introduction of the idea of heat death, it also serves as a refutation of the very same possibility. Rather than asserting that the dissipation of heat will lead to an eventual extinguishing of all life, Kelvin instead posits a universe in which the second law of thermodynamics insures a continued activity of matter, directed and given order by the transformation of potential energy into motion and heat. Thus Kelvin was driven to establish a firm limit on the beginning of the earth in order to make his view of progression make sense in light of the fact that time in the universe had a direction, but no observable ending. While the earth itself may be limited and thus doomed to dissipation, the universe itself faced no such restriction.

This meant that the very thermodynamics which made the universe run was threatened by the Huttonian world machine, for if the earth was composed of eternal cycles, thermodynamics was in error, and, perhaps more unforgivably, the whole notion of progression in time. Furthermore, as has already been seen in Kelvin’s critique of “zoological speculations” in his 1872 speech, he was deeply worried about the effect geological and biological studies would have on the free will of humans. It was the indefiniteness of time which gave Hutton’s position the capacity to deny human history, which would rob individuals of their efficacy in the face of a world in which everything was repetition. Kelvin’s view of endless progression, however, would avoid this misevaluation of the will through its directionality. This directionality insured a firm ground for knowledge, insofar as universal laws could be derived from constant causes, but one whose effects could vary over time, a fact which, for Kelvin, also insured the purposefulness of human experience.

Ultimately, the similarities between Kelvin’s and Hutton’s approaches were striking considering the radically different conclusions which they drew from them. Both used almost identical assumptions about the uniformity of nature, with the exception of Hutton’s demand for circularity and Kelvin’s distinction that a uniform cause can produce a different effect given a different substrate. Likewise, both were led by strong religious convictions about the kind of order a beneficent god would establish in the world. What caused the contention in determining the age of the earth was the presuppositions they made about what that divine order would be like, whether it would be an eternal cycle or an eternal progression and what this would mean for both natural philosophy and the individual. In the age in which the problem was raised the conflict could not be satisfactorily resolved, and it was perpetuated by the ambiguous nature of secondary causes which both theories were forced to rely upon to prove their separate claims.

In the end what can really be learned from this debate is the vital capacity for similar methods and guiding principles to lead to dramatically different results given but a handful of separate core convictions. This tendency is only magnified in any system of knowledge which requires an indirect view of its subject matter. In such cases all positions must then suffer the capricious whims of the secondary causes upon which they, nevertheless, must rely.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Kelvin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hutton

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Lyell

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Playfair

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniformitarianism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_death

Burchfield, Joe D.  Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth. London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1975.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Hutton, James. Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations. Vol 1 and 2. Weinheim: H.R. Engelmann (J. Cramer) and Wheldon & Wesley, LTD., 1960.

Knell, Simon J. and Cherry L.E. Lewis. “Celebrating the Age of the Earth”. In The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

Lyell, Charles. “Principles of Geology” in 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Ed. A.S. Weber. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.

Playfair, John. Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. London: Cadell and Davies, 1802.  In On Geological Time. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <http://zapatopi.net/kelvin/papers/>

Thomson, W. (Lord Kelvin). “Popular Lectures and Addresses”, vol. 2. As in The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds. C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

–––.  “On Geological Dynamics” in Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, 1869. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <http://zapatopi.net/kelvin/papers/>

–––.  “On the Age of the Sun’s Heat” in Popular Lectures and Addresses, vol. 1, 2nd edition. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <http://zapatopi.net/kelvin/papers/>

–––. “On the Secular Cooling of the Earth”. in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. XXIII, pp. 167-169, 1864. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <http://zapatopi.net/kelvin/papers/>

–––. “On Geological Time”. in Popular Lectures and Addresses, Vol. ii, p. 10. 1868. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <http://zapatopi.net/kelvin/papers/>

Charles Lyell, the Sea Serpent and a Lingering Puzzle of Evolution

Most people know the British geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) for the role that his Principles of Geology played in helping to ground Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Along with his intellectual mentor James Hutton (1726–1797), Lyell support a principle known as uniformitarianism, the belief that the past behaved essentially in the same way as the present and that massive changes could be accounted for by smaller changes given sufficient time. The most immediate consequence of this being the development of a notion of “deep time”, the vast, almost incomprehensible age of the Earth that played such an important role in arsenal of evolutionary naturalism in the nineteenth century. Yet this was not all, it also asserted that a close study of the earth based upon uniformitarian principles revealed that it exhibited a steady state pattern of endlessly repeating cycles.

While Lyell did support Darwin’s work and was one of the early defenders of The Origin of Species, he often seemed at best lukewarm in his support for natural selection itself. This was a cause for some consternation amongst his fellows, and Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), and others in their circle were keenly aware of his position. It is a valid observation, and often commented upon, that Lyell’s ambivalence to the theory stemmed in part from his religious convictions, particularly in regards to the origin and development of the human animal. However, there were other, more theoretical reasons that also played a role in his discomfort.

Despite the fact that the evidence emerging from the fossil records hinted towards an ever increasing degree of complexity in the realm of organic development and organization, Lyell’s uniformitarian position and his observations of the actual layers of the earth directed his attention to the steady state pattern previously mentioned. How could it be that there was an apparent directionality in the evolution of species if the environments that produced them appeared to pass through essentially the same cycles? If natural selection accounted for the majority of evolutionary changes, that is, creatures changing in response to their environments, wouldn’t there be a certain, set number of variations possible? Indeed, wouldn’t it be possible for these variations to die out during a cycle that could not support them, but to reappear again when the environment returned to a previous state?

This line of questioning then, leads us to the sea serpent.

Lyell was a skeptical and cautious observer in these matters; however, in some of his published writings, and many more of his personal ones, he displayed a keen interest in every account of sea monsters and serpents that he could find. If something from the fossil records of one age could be found alive today, in effect, a living fossil, perhaps it could act as organic evidence for his more radical geological position.

Here the Atlantic provinces of Canada and the New England states of America play a particularly important role. In his A Second Visit to the United State of North America, Vol I published in the year 1849, he writes of a disappointing hoax he was led to in 1845 during his stay in Boston. It was perpetrated by a Mr. Koch, who claimed of his serpent’s skeleton that this “hydrarchos, or water king, was the leviathan of the Book of Job, chapter xli”. Lyell determined the bones to be of an extinct zeuglodon (what is today called a Basilosaurus), dug up in Alabama and arranged to resemble a serpent.

Albert Koch's "Hydrarchos" fossil skeleton from 1845.

 Yet he was forced to reconsider his position after hearing back from a friend of his in Nova Scotia:

“At the very time when I had every day to give an answer to the question whether I really believed the great fossil skeleton from Alabama to be that of the sea serpent formerly seen on the coast near Boston, I received news of the reappearance of the same serpent, in a letter from my friend Mr. J. W. Dawson, of Pictou, in Nova Scotia. This geologist, with whom I explored Nova Scotia in 1842, said he was collecting evidence for me of the appearance, in the month of August, 1845, at Merigomish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, of a marine monster, about 100 feet long, seen by two intelligent observers, nearly aground in calm water, within 200 feet of the beach, where it remained in sight about half an hour, and then got off with difficulty.”

The creature had also been seen off the coast of Prince Edward Island, terrifying the fishermen, and a year before a similar creature troubled the natives of Arisaig on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia. Lyell provided the following image and commented on its strange, undulating movements:

He went on to describe sightings of creatures from across North America and Norway and observed that not only was it “impossible not to be struck with their numerous points of agreement”, but that a pattern could even be seen in their points of contradiction, namely, in the quality of evidence provided by those on the shore “without their imaginations being disturbed by apprehensions of personal danger”, and the consternation of those fishermen in the water who, more than anyone, should be able to tell a serpent from “an ordinary whale or shark, or a shoal of porpoises, or some other known cetacean or fish.”

However, the sheer number of people shooting the creatures in what they thought to be their heads (an all too common trope in the history of sea monsters), but who did not in fact kill them, was a cause of some puzzlement, and ultimately Lyell concluded that the creature was most likely a large, fast moving species of shark:

“It can hardly be doubted that some good marksmen, both in Norway and New England, who fired at the animal, sent bullets into what they took to be the head, and the fact that the wound seems never to have produced serious injury, although in one case blood flowed freely, accords perfectly with the hypothesis that they were firing at the dorsal prominence, and not at the head of a shark.”

A misunderstanding of the processes of decomposition of marine animals on shore, combined with the optical effects of water was the likely cause of the accounts. Yet even discounting the serpentine nature of the creature, this did not totally undermine his hopes that researches into sea monsters could bring fourth evidence of living fossils.

It is clear that Lyell did at one point believe in sea serpents, but importantly, not fully as given by the narratives he explored. As he said:

“I confess that when I left America in 1846, I was in a still more unfortunate predicament, for I believed in the sea serpent without having seen it. Not that I ever imagined the northern seas to be now inhabited by a gigantic ophidian [snake], for this hypothesis has always seemed to me in the highest degree improbable, seeing that, in the present state of the globe, there is no great development of reptile life in temperate or polar regions, whether in the northern or southern hemisphere.”

He was unsure if the sea serpent was actually a serpent at all, given the climactic conditions then prevalent in the North Atlantic, furthermore little solid proof could be found for their existence that could not be explained in some other way. Yet, like the depths of time, the depths of the oceans provided another chasm of uncertainty and he: “[questioned] whether we are as yet so well acquainted with all the tenants of the great deep as to entitle us to attach much weight to this argument from negative evidence”.

A modern reconstruction of a Basilosaurus.

Context played a crucial role in both his conclusion, and his qualifications, for: “in the first place, we must dismiss from our minds the image of a shark as it appears when out of the water, or as stuffed in a museum.” In addition to this limitation of witnesses, there was also the larger context of the geological record, for even in his dismissal of the sea serpent as a serpent, it did not rule out earlier, larger mammals and sharks.

“[I]n the geological periods, immediately antecedent to that when the present molluscous fauna came into existence, there was a similar absence of large reptiles, although there were then, as now, in colder latitudes, many huge sharks, seals, narwals, and whales. If, however, the creature observed in North America and Norway, should really prove to be some unknown species of any one of these last-mentioned families of vertebrata, I see no impropriety in its retaining the English name of sea serpent, just as one of the seals is now called a sea elephant, and a small fish of the Mediterranean, a sea horse; while other marine animals are named sea mice and urchins, although they have only a fanciful resemblance to hedgehogs or mice.”

The sea serpent could very well be a shark, and still retain its common title, what mattered to him was not so much its nomenclature, as its potential place in multiple geological periods.

Even given this concession, Lyell never found the evidence he was looking for in any of the accounts he collected throughout his life, and today his attempt to demonstrate the circularity of geological periods and the creatures to be found within them seems by many to be one of the misguided inheritances he received from his predecessor, Hutton.

Yet before we judge Lyell too harshly, consider this: Darwin’s own estimate for the age of the earth was 300 million years, based on the rate of erosion of the Weald valley in the sound of England; it was considered a terrible miscalculation by both more geologically inclined supporters of his theories as well as notable detractors such as the physicist Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Outside of using deep time as a resource for his own theories, there is little evidence that Darwin himself struggled with the concept in any significant way, whereas Lyell, drawing from Hutton, was actively engaged in its more troubling aspects as a theory which then, as even now, demonstrates how ill equipped the human mind is to fully appreciate the consequences of eons.

In the nineteenth century the evidence of the best physics of the day consistently contradicted the vision of the earth’s history provided by the evolutionary naturalists, as well as the geologists, and it was in no ways certain whose account was inherently more coherent, for in truth, they all were, but some were looking at the sun as their guide, others at the snails, and others still at the stones themselves. By the same measure we cannot smugly smile and say: but we have found living fossils, and they do nothing to demonstrate the circularity that Lyell had anticipated, but only the stability of certain environmental conditions, for if we were more circumspect the sheer span of that statement would stagger the mind. Even in these cases, 100 million years, the age of one of the oldest unchanged species known to date, the Schizodactylidae, shown below, pails in comparison to 4.54 billion years of the earth itself.

Image from the University of Illinois.

Schizodactylus monstrosus

Everyone who has watched a BBC documentary or taken a class in biology feels that they know that the age of the earth is now fully appreciated, and its consequences largely deduced. He or she has seen the time laps videos comparing its age to the length of a day, heard the stories of how even in terms of the old measurements based on the dimensions of the King’s body, the human age would hardly account for more than a sliver off of his royal fingernail, and we feel quite comfortable with our apparent insignificance, indeed, feel it to be something familiar and emboldening. In truth we have forgotten its strangeness. Far more existential agonies are forgotten than are ever resolved, and so too it is with the notion of deep time, for we have not tamed it, but merely placed it out of sight, on an enormous rodent’s running wheel, to do its work for us – to be sure it is always an excellent weapon against facile notions of creation – but not really trouble us overmuch.

However, when it comes to the heart of the matter, we are no more capable today of explaining the apparent increase in the complexity of organisms by means of evolutionary theory than they were at the time of Lyell’s writing. The alternative, some plateau or self-contained and consistent state of complexity that is attained sometime after the development of organic beings, still begs the same questions that he was trying to come to terms with in regard to evolutionary changes within a finite series of environmental parameters.

And so, being ask to write for this, the first installment of the Cosmic Standard, I could think of no more fitting way to honour it than to help point the reader to the incredible strangeness of the cosmos, especially and above all in those things which we tend to take for granted. Explore as we may, and explore as we will, it still remains questionable how many places on the map of existence we must mark off, or fill in with fanciful illustrations and consign ourselves to the old and fearful caution: “Here be dragons.”

For More Information:

Benson, Keith Rodney and Philip F. Rehbock (eds). 2002. Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond. University of Washington Press: Washington D.C..

Lyons, Sherrie Lynne. 2009. Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. State University of New York Press: Albany.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Lyell

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hutton

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeuglodon

http://www.polenth.com/myth/charles.html

http://news.softpedia.com/news/Species-Found-Unchanged-After-100-Million-Years-183401.shtml